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Letter from Iraqi Kurdistan | The Nation

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Letter from Iraqi Kurdistan

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Qala Diza

About the Author

Michael Howard
Michael Howard is the editor of Odyssey, a current affairs magazine about Greece published in Athens, and a regular...

The view, like so many in Iraqi Kurdistan, was special, and for the tenth time that day I asked Meriwan, my long-suffering driver, to stop so I could take a picture. Stretching out before us was a vast, fertile plain patterned with the satisfying geometry of agriculture; golden squares of wheat slotted in neatly next to oblongs of sunflowers and thin strips of tobacco plants. Shirtless laborers tilled the fields, wearing traditional Kurdish baggy trousers and floppy wide-brimmed straw hats to protect against the fierce July sun. As a backdrop, the impressive heights of Mount Kandil, straddling the border with Iran, were still capped with snow, despite the thermometer pushing 107 degrees Fahrenheit on the plain. And in the foreground was the town of Qala Diza, fitting snugly into the rolling landscape, its squat, flat-topped houses sheltering under a verdant umbrella of trees.

I took a deep breath of the hot, scented air, and just stared, knowing that my camera would never do justice to this bucolic scene. Suddenly I was hit by a powerful sense of déjà vu; I had seen this all before. Then I remembered the photograph. Taken in April 1991 by Susan Meiselas, and included in her excellent book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, it was a panorama of Qala Diza shot from a vantage point close to where I now stood. Except that eleven years ago, Qala Diza did not exist. The photograph was a haunting study in decimation. Every building in the town had been flattened, squashed into the ground as if by a giant boot. Only the trees remained upright. As Meiselas noted at the time: "Stone houses are now piles of rubble. No electricity, no running water, little food. People living under slabs of concrete within the ruins of their former homes."

At first glance, Meiselas's picture appeared to document the harrowing aftermath of a massive earthquake. But Qala Diza was no natural apocalypse. The Iraqi Army had systematically, and expertly, dynamited and bulldozed the town's houses, stores, schools and hospitals. Those among the population of 70,000 who had not fled to Turkey or Iran were rounded up and moved far away into purposefully built and easily policed settlements--or to give them their official, Orwellian epithet, "collective towns." Some residents simply "disappeared," adding to the long list of victims of the genocidal tendencies of Saddam Hussein. The destruction of Qala Diza was a central part of Saddam's now notorious Anfal ("the spoils") campaign. The aim was to create a cordon sanitaire around the borders with Turkey and Iran that would be ethnically cleansed of Kurds.

Today, Qala Diza II is rising from the rubble. The aura of fear and oppression evident in Meiselas's photograph has evaporated. As our air-conditioned pickup bounced down the potholed high street (the local authorities accept that resurfacing the roads must be next on their to-do list), we swerved to dodge one of the town's two bulldozers belching exhaust fumes as it headed jerkily toward its next task. "It's liberated!" said Meriwan, pointing at the aging machine with a gleam in his eye. It had, he said, once been used by Saddam to destroy what it was now helping to renew.

Since the establishment of the safe-haven and the no-flight zone in the wake of the Gulf War of 1990-91, the 3.5 million Kurds in this mountainous region in northern Iraq--roughly the size of Switzerland--have been conducting what they call their "democratic experiment" in self-rule. Under the protection of the US/UK air umbrella and free from the brutal hand of Baghdad, those who returned to pick up the pieces in such towns as Qala Diza now exude a burgeoning self-confidence. New roads, schools, hospitals, even hotels, are under construction. The two Kurdish authorities that rule the autonomous area (in the west, Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, the KDP; and in the east, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK) are fostering democratic freedoms rarely seen in the region. "It's not perfect, but it's a little bubble of democracy in a neighborhood from hell," said a Western diplomat who visited the area recently.

Amid the white noise emanating from Washington about the future of Iraq, Kurds are wary that their "bubble" could easily burst. They know that they will never feel secure while Saddam is in power, but they are anxious at the prospect of more violence and upheaval. The support of the Kurds, who control as many as 80,000 peshmerga (meaning "those who face death"), is seen as an essential part of any US mission to dislodge Saddam. One of the military scenarios being considered by Washington is to use the peshmerga in a Northern Alliance-style attack on Baghdad, backed up by US air support. But the peshmerga are lightly armed and no match for the might of the Iraqi Army in head-to-head combat, especially if chemical weapons are used. Kurdish leaders have asked the United States to provide them with special protective gear and medicine. Eager not to provoke Saddam, Kurds have also publicly distanced themselves from any US attempts at covert action to effect regime change.

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